Beware - Poet At Work

The Jan Dean Interview




Poet released into wild with family. Poet is the silliest one - with earrings.

DISCLAIMERS: Eldest son wishes to make it clear that he is not as fat as a barrel, but that it was windy on this hill and his T-shirt was inflated by sudden gusts. Youngest son wishes to make it clear that he does not know the mad woman in the picture. He has never seen her in his life before and that she is definitely not his mother. If we were walking he would be three paces ahead/behind all the other nutters in this picture.

Hello, Jan. Welcome to The Poetry Zone. You write books as well as poetry. When you get an idea, how do you know if it will be a book or a poem?

Stories and ideas have their own shape. They come out the way theyíre supposed to. Sometimes an idea is poem-shaped, sometimes itís a book. Iíve even written for puppet theatre and so that idea was puppet- theatre-shaped. My latest thing is a series for Hodder Wayland. - Four books about Cheesy Adams (monster specialist) and his friend Zoom. Titles are FROGSNOT ATE MY GOLDFISH / BABYSITTING JELLYBLOB / KRAXIS AND THE COW-JUICE SOUP / NEEDLEBELLY AND THE BULLY BOY.

How long does it take to write a poem?

Itís like baking bread. Thereís working time when you bash the poem-dough about, then thereís resting time where you leave it alone. Then you look at again and bash it about some more etc etc. So I reckon I write a poem in half hour bursts spread over a couple of months - or longer.

How long does it take to write a book?

Depends on the length. A short book like HARRY AND THE MEGABYTE BRAIN takes about a week to rough out and then a couple more to get the storytelling sharp. Then editors get involved and you can spend another month fiddling with it. Iím about to start work on a TREMOR for Hodder and Iíve got six weeks to do it in.

What is the most unusual event that has inspired you to write a poem?

Bog-snorkelling.

Say it again: Bog snorkelling.
There's music there in those two words,
The heavy slap and dribble
Of a big fat dob of mud falling off a shiny shovel.

If I were a bog snorkeller
Snug in my wetsuit and slick as a leech
I'd love saying: 'Hey! I'm a bog-snorkeller - don't mess with me!'
I'd savour that luscious, cowpat-drippy-floppy sound.

The only trouble is - mud's such yukky stuff to stick your face in.
I want to say I'm a bog-snorkeller, but...
I don't want to snorkel bogs.

How do you write your poems?

Noisily. Iím keen on rhythms and sounds. If I write on a train I can clear a huge space in the compartment. (I am the nutter making strange noises in the corner.)

Are you writing anything at the moment?

Something that will probably be called THE GHOSTLY SMOKE for Hodder Wayland series and then a couple of MEGASTARS.

Which is the most unusual school that you've visited?

The most unusual school Iíve ever visited was REIGATE PRIORY (which is a state school not a private school). The building is very old. It was once owned by Lord Howard who was in charge of Elizabeth Iís defences against the Spanish Armada. When I did a short residency there I was working in a classroom that had once been Henry VIIIís bedroom!!!

What was your most memorable visit?

A writing in the environment project in Northumberland when it snowed. Brilliant.

What was your worst moment?

Being in a secondary school classroom waiting for the English teacher to turn up. The teacher was very late and the class were so noisy and revolting that I went home.

Have you been on the TV or radio?

I was interviewed on Radio Newcastle once. Apart from that Iíve had poems and stories broadcast on Radio 4 and schools radio.

Who are your favourite poets?

How long have you got?

I love Ian Macmillanís work especially SLOW THAW and am a Charles Causley fan. When I was in school we read a lot of poems by Walter de la Mare - I liked them then and I still like them now.

I love Stevie Smithís poems - they are seriously weird.

Also Adrian Mitchell - especially his Apeman poems.

I like Tony Mitton, Brian Moses, John Rice and Celia Warren.

It goes without saying that I think Roger Stevens ( especially LOUDER!) and Sue Cowling are wonderful!! And we will make a great SANDWICH together.


Of all the poems you've written, which is your favourite?

Am I allowed 2?

1) Angels

2)Ghosts in our Suburban Homes

The creaking of a wicker chair
When something unseen settles there.
It's ghosts, ss, ss, ss...It's ghosts.

Mad wardrobes swinging in the night,
A flicker at the edge of sight
It's ghosts, ss, ss, ss... It's ghosts.

The rocker rocks. The curtains sigh
Out of the corner of your eye
The solid darkness passes by - it's ghosts!

They spread themselves along the wall,
Shadows with shadows haunt the hall,
A great grey silent waterfall ... of ghosts!

Come midnight, watch the stair-
Tread sink with no foot there.
It's ghosts, ss, ss, ss... It's ghosts.

A thousand thousand whispering souls
Mass quietly behind small holes.
A million slither through the cracks
Behind the door, behind our backs
Insinuating, white as wax ...are ghosts!

And in the silence of the moon,
The silver silence of the moon,
The ghosts release a silent tune
To rise like steam from some sad tomb.
The soundless song of frozen skies,
The ice of unsung lullabies,
Wordless as the frosted eyes of ghosts...

Ghosts in our suburban homes.
Ghosts in our suburban homes.
Ghosts, ss, ss, ss,
Ghosts.


Have you any poems coming out in the near future?

Thereís usually an odd poem or two about to wriggle to the surface in an anthology, but in August Iím going to be a Macmillan SANDWICH POET with Roger Stevens and Sue Cowling. I want to be the sort of sandwich where ketchup squirts out at the side when you bite it and splodges your brotherís clean school uniform..... I do not want my crusts cutting off.

(NB The book's now out and it's called A MEAN FISH SMILE and it's in the Poetry Zone shop!)



What sort of a person are you when you are writing?

Totally horrible. If you interrupt me I bite your head off. If you offer me nice things, like cups of tea, I snap at you. I JUST WANT YOU OUT OF MY HEAD WHILE I'M WORKING!!!! Got that?

Generally speaking I'm not Frankenstein's monster just a bit dippy ( see family photo) - but when working I am dangerous....

Er... I'd better change the subject, then. Have you any pets?

Harry who is a jolly sort of dog. I used his character in a book I wrote for CUP called HARRY AND THE MEGABYTE BRAIN and the illustrator got him just right. Which was amazing because he never saw a photo or anything.The actual plot of the story is made up, but the little things along the way - the sorts of things the characters say, their reactions etc are pinched from family life.

Do you put people you know into stories?

When I was writing it my youngest, Chris, asked to be put in the story so that he could go to bookweek dressed as himself! ( He hates dressing up and did not want to be a caterpillar/robot/anything else.) My married name is Lees, so Chris and Matthew Lees are the boys in my story. And Chris did do bookweek in his jeans! I think this is fair - if you live with a mad poet there have to be some spin-off benefits.

How do you spend your spare time?

I walk Harry. I make very good chocolate puddings. I sing in the church choir. Actually Iím not a very good singer, but I enjoy it and the choir are desperate so they let me stay.

What did you do before becoming a poet?

Doodled on the side of the page and chewed the end of my pencil a lot.


Have you any plans for the future?

To write a few more poems for grown-ups as well as for younger people.

To learn even more chocolate pudding recipes.

To create my own web page.


What could schools do to improve the way poetry is taught?

Getting poets in is always a good idea - and different writers will give you different ways in to writing. The government keeps marking schools on their test scores - this makes teachers really twitchy. It makes them care too much about marks and right answers and all that stuff. Right answers and poetry do not fit together. So, one way of improving poetry teaching is to care less about getting it right and care more about playing with words. Enjoy!

Finally - what advice would you give to young poets?

Remember that you donít win a coconut every time.

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